Chapter 10:Giving up the Bones
“What’s that racket?” I moaned.
“My new réveil.”
“And you set it why?”
“The van, it arrives early today.”
Ever since Brielle had introduced me to the night crawlers, my evenings were busy with parties, trying new restaurants and chillin’ out with them. Often Brielle and Leannán joined us; equally often they were missing. The first time I realized she was meeting him--her hair neatly tucked under her canvas hat, a bit of rouge on her cheeks and a splash of lipstick on her thin lips--I slipped my Planned Parenthood box of condoms into the backpack hanging off of her skinny shoulder.
And if I did get to bed early, my nights were filled with images of cobras and landmines. I was always tired.
“Come on, come,” the teachers shouted and waved to us as Brielle and I ambled lazily into the classroom. Mr. Tong was looking quite out of character as he checked his wristwatch and tapped his foot on the scarred, stained tile floor.
“We are going in the vans to the national Killing Fields monument this morning. The drive will take about forty-five minutes to an hour,” he informed us in his formal, quiet voice. Like others in the room, I made an involuntary sucking sound. We had all read about the Killing Fields. They dotted the landscape across the country, but few were marked. Most were located on mountainsides, their horror reclaimed by the jungle. But the terror was palpable in the ruins of the city and in the stories of the locals, who gave muted explanations of missing parents or siblings.
I thought about Hon, who had hidden in the jungle at night to escape the Pol Pot guards. After her parents were murdered in their bed for speaking French, Khmer Rouge soldiers had sent her to a children’s work camp, saying, “Intellectuals don’t make good rice farmers.” She had showed me her missing toe—a punishment for disobedience. I couldn’t imagine that kind of pain or knowing that kind of fear.
I got a window seat, hoping to open it and catch a breeze. As I struggled with the window, our van drove past the Royal Palace and turned down a narrow alleyway I didn’t recognize. Brielle, sitting in the row ahead, pointed out the sign above a sleazy bar around the corner from the palace: “Welcome to the Heart of Darkness.” I reached over the seat and put a clammy hand on Brielle’s shoulder as we passed. It seemed ominously prescient of our destination.
We continued out of the city on a dirt road lined with makeshift stands selling fruit, cigarettes and bottles of petrol for motorbikes. A thick layer of red parched dirt covered everything, cloaking the countryside in what looked like a film of blood. Coughing, I pushed the window closed.
About fifteen kilometers outside of Phnom Penh in the village of Choeung Ek, we arrived at the monument to the infamous Killing Fields of Pol Pot, which memorialized the genocide that had claimed nearly three million victims—one-third of the country’s population. As the vans pulled into a parking area, I could see only a chalky white field with a tall pagoda in the center. We tumbled out of the cramped vans, hot from the dusty ride out of the city, and collected rather haphazardly around the stone entrance. A slim young Cambodian man named Kosal greeted us. Putting our hands together, as if we were going to pray, we chanted in unison, “Sue-saw-day Kosal,” wishing him good day.
Kosal began his standard orientation to the site in heavily accented but reasonably good English. “Cambodians,” he said stiffly, “do not compare this genocide to Hitler’s.”
Cambodians claimed the slaughter to be more terrible, because it was brother killing brother. The tortuous ways that people were killed, often by having their heads bashed in or suffocated with plastic grocery bags and drowned, were equally as terrible. Holocaust photos of skeletal figures piled fourteen deep in a forty-foot-long ditch flashed before me. My eyes squinted in the bright sun as I stood immobilized and stared.
I moved closer to the stupah, the monument erected in memory of the victims. It was not a Western museum paying homage to the dead. Glass cabinets held neither grainy photos of those who had died nor yellowed pages of recovered diaries. The mementos were the dead themselves, who had been excavated from the hundreds of mass graves that surrounded the area. Behind clear exterior glass windows, shelves upon shelves of skulls—many with large holes from being bludgeoned—lay in silent testimony. Mothers, daughters, fathers and sons had been buried unceremoniously en masse, then exhumed and displayed—unmarked, unidentifiable and unclaimed. The Killing Fields were a never-ending national funeral that did little to celebrate life. Instead, the skulls told the story of incomprehensible death.
Kosal, who had lost many relatives, took us to some of the excavated sites. As I walked, something crunched beneath my feet. I looked more closely. I found teeth and bits of bone everywhere. My stomach turned over as the quiet chalky earth gave up its secret. A sort of fear struck me and prickled my skin as I walked. This horror touched me as I touched it. I walked in the graves; I walked among the dead.
When the tour was over, I took Kosal’s hand and said, “Goodbye. This was too terrible. I won’t forget what happened here.”
As the vans took us back to the city, I saw plastic bags fluttering from tree limbs and bushes. Kosal had confirmed that those who didn’t have their skulls bashed in were often suffocated with plastic bags. With every patch of white gravel we passed, I imagined a pile of human bones crushed and forgotten.
Suddenly Hon’s face appeared. It was an apparition, but I saw her—small and frightened, running from Khmer Rouge soldiers with plastic bags and machetes in their hands. Then she disappeared, maybe hidden and safe. No, the soldiers were dragging her back to the work camp and cutting off her toe as punishment. There was blood, but no tears.
My breath stuck in my lungs, and my chest tightened with a new appreciation of her unspeakable experience. I was suffering with her. Earlier pity gave way to compassion and understanding. What had happened to me? I had run away from an enviable, albeit stale and safe career, as well as a passionless but financially comfortable marriage. Frigg, Hon and I didn’t inhabit the same universe!
Back in class, we followed up our outing with a lesson in cultural differences. I mentioned my generous tip to the guide and my response to Kosal’s obvious pain. Mr. Tong looked at me and chuckled loudly. “Ms. Havra, this guide, this young man you met at the Killing Fields, knows exactly how to generate a large tip!”
My face flushed red and my fists clenched. I tried to keep my voice even and steady. “I wonder exactly what you consider the appropriate tip for a man who guides you by his family’s skulls as you crush the remains of their bones with each step.” There was no sound in the classroom; not even the fans moved. Mr. Tong met my glare, but he only smiled politely and nodded his head.